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American Apocalypse | The Nation

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American Apocalypse

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We know from history that collective humiliation can be a goad to various kinds of aggressive behavior--as has been true of bin Laden and Al Qaeda. It was also true of the Nazis. Nazi doctors told me of indelible scenes, which they either witnessed as young children or were told about by their fathers, of German soldiers returning home defeated after World War I. These beaten men, many of them wounded, engendered feelings of pathos, loss and embarrassment, all amid national misery and threatened revolution. Such scenes, associated with strong feelings of humiliation, were seized upon by the Nazis to the point where one could say that Hitler rose to power on the promise of avenging them.

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Robert Jay Lifton
Robert Jay Lifton is the author of Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World and Home...

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This Friday marks the 65th anniversary of the first use of the atomic bomb against a large city. Since that day, creative artists of every variety have made incisive, satiric or powerful statements about nuclear threat. What these artistic statements share, however, with rare exceptions, is an avoidance of the specific subject of Hiroshima.

With both Al Qaeda and the Nazis, humiliation could, through manipulation but also powerful self-conviction, be transformed into exaggerated expressions of violence. That psychological transformation of weakness and shame into a collective sense of pride and life-power, as well as power over others, can release enormous amounts of aggressive energy. Such dangerous potential has been present from the beginning in the American "war" on terrorism.

Infinite War

War itself is an absolute, its violence unpredictable and always containing apocalyptic possibilities. In this case, by militarizing the problem of terrorism, our leaders have dangerously obfuscated its political, social and historical dimensions. Terrorism has instead been raised to the absolute level of war itself. And although American leaders speak of this as being a "different kind of war," there is a drumbeat of ordinary war rhetoric and a clarion call to total victory and to the crushing defeat of our terrorist enemies. When President Bush declared that "this conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others [but] will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing," he was misleading both in suggesting a clear beginning in Al Qaeda's acts and a decisive end in the "battle" against terrorism. In that same speech, given at a memorial service just three days after 9/11 at the National Cathedral in Washington, he also asserted, "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, not a man given to irony, commented that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan."

At no time did Bush see his task as mounting a coordinated international operation against terrorism, for which he could have enlisted most of the governments of the world. Rather, upon hearing of the second plane crashing into the second tower, he remembers thinking: "They had declared war on us, and I made up my mind at that moment that we were going to war." Upon hearing of the plane crashing into the Pentagon, he told Vice President Cheney, "We're at war." Woodward thus calls his account of the President's first hundred days following 9/11 Bush at War. Bush would later recall, "I had to show the American people the resolve of a commander in chief that was going to do whatever it took to win." With world leaders, he felt he had to "look them in the eye and say, 'You're either with us or you're against us.'" Long before the invasion of Iraq--indeed, even before the invasion of Afghanistan--Bush had come to identify himself, and be identified by others, as a "wartime president."

Warmaking can quickly become associated with "war fever," the mobilization of public excitement to the point of a collective experience of transcendence. War then becomes heroic, even mythic, a task that must be carried out for the defense of one's nation, to sustain its special historical destiny and the immortality of its people. In this case, the growth of war fever came in several stages: its beginnings, with Bush's personal declaration of war immediately after September 11; a modest increase, with the successful invasion of Afghanistan; and a wave of ultrapatriotic excesses--triumphalism and labeling of critics as disloyal or treasonous--at the time of the invasion of Iraq. War fever tends always to be sporadic and subject to disillusionment. Its underside is death anxiety, in this case related less to combat than to fears of new terrorist attacks at home or against Americans abroad--and later to growing casualties in occupied Iraq.

The scope of George Bush's war was suggested within days of 9/11 when the director of the CIA made a presentation to the President and his inner circle, called "Worldwide Attack Matrix," that described active or planned operations of various kinds in eighty countries, or what Woodward calls "a secret global war on terror." Early on, the President had the view that "this war will be fought on many fronts" and that "we're going to rout out terror wherever it may exist." Although envisaged long before 9/11, the invasion of Iraq could be seen as a direct continuation of this unlimited war; all the more so because of the prevailing tone among the President and his advisers, who were described as eager "to emerge from the sea of words and pull the trigger."

The war on terrorism is apocalyptic, then, exactly because it is militarized and yet amorphous, without limits of time or place, and has no clear end. It therefore enters the realm of the infinite. Implied in its approach is that every last terrorist everywhere on the earth is to be hunted down until there are no more terrorists anywhere to threaten us, and in that way the world will be rid of evil. Bush keeps what Woodward calls "his own personal scorecard for the war" in the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out if killed or captured. The scorecard is always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.

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